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The Perfectionist’s Paradox. Art & News. Meeting President Nelson Mandela

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Meeting President Nelson Mandela was one of those seminal moments where in a moment, akin to a film running at 100x its speed, events flash before you. Time then slows at the moment of the handshake, as you look, or is that stare at him, before normality ensues. Of course this all takes about six to ten seconds as the President asks a question.

Seconds before he came to me, I gestured to his official photographer for a photo. These were the analogue days and the response suggested he’d run out of film. Given my insignificance, I’d like to think that was a tall tail… so I never got that photo preserved in magnesium amber which solidifies my story. In that same week though, I would sit down for an interview with Quincy Jones combing through his contribution to music and friendship with President Mandela in Kippies Bar, Soweto.

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The iconology and here I’m using the term from Erwin Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology; the meaning of a painting, or photo in this case meeting Mandela rather than its form, is lost.

Its short hand code, the optics, which I’m not entirely doing justice to Panofsky is the impact then of subject matter and instantaneously intrinsic meaning versus various other interpretations we attach such as reflective in its context and perhaps how we got there. Now and then.

The photo I confess would have been something. If you’ve met President Mandela before, or as a diplomat, journalist or friend shared his company, the provenance I attach to the occasion may seem inconsequential. But the context (then) for me is everything. How as a working class boy, a chemistry graduate I was desperate to become a reporter and understand international affairs through a different set of standards and sensibilities.

I could find no outlets in the UK so moved to (Apartheid) South Africa, reported on conflicts, and eventually started filing for the networks. I then left South Africa after the election only to return some years later when working with the former head of Turner in Africa, Edward Boateng ( now Ghana’s Ambassador to China) we pulled of a set of programmes you’ve likely not heard of.

We referred to them as the United States of Africa — a set of factual docs in which Ghanaian TV crews travelled for the first time in their lives to South Africa to create a series of programmes without a Western filter. As the exec producer and my Ghanaian sensibilities, this was Africa through the interpretive lens of Africans. We used small video cameras. This was 1996. This was Art and News.

Conflict reportage would continue to be part of my career, as would art when I was personally appointed by Jude kelly OBE, the artistic director of the Southbank Centre to become one of her artists in residence.

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